Genre: gen, outsider POV, Mid/Late S5
Word Count: ~2500
Warnings: racial slurs, brief mentions of police violence
Summary: Lowerey’s Diner in Manitou Creek is nothing special, and these men know it. They glance at the menu like it’s a body part--something known and familiar that need only be assessed, not discovered. They don’t call her over. The hungry one just sort of flicks his gaze up at her and flicks it away, like they’re in the middle of something and waitresses are not invited.
One Hmong waitress, two tall men, and the morning of what could have been the end of America. Mid/Late S5.
These days she’s from Milwaukee; and her English is fine.
It’s just that Mindy’s is better. Susan’s, too.
Mindy and Susan are here from a top 150 Guangdong women’s college. Grammar. Rhetoric. They even understand honorifics like sir and madam. Paak didn’t finish tenth grade.
It’s not that they’re shy, either. Mindy and Susan will talk to families, babies, and lady backpackers, and church groups, and lovers, and tour buses--Paak’s never met a shy Chinese.
But Mindy and Susan never speak to men like these. The tall plaid ones.
And who can blame them, really? In the face of Real American Men.
Paak rolls her eyes.
Their grades may have been perfect, but they can barely pronounce their own American names. Still sounds like Mengxi, Sucheng.
Paak is the American one.
And these men are her responsibility, just like all the rest of them.
WELCOME TO MANITOU CREEK, she chirps, exactly the same way Chris The Manager trained them all to say it. WE ARE THE GATEWAY TO THE VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK. WE HAVE MEALS AND BEDS AND WE RENT CANOES FOR CHEAP.
One of the men puts a hand to his belly and jabs the other lightly in the back. Paak hands them laminated menus because whatever her command of English, these men speak the language of her uncles. Bodies moving, speaking without words.
Their fingernails are dirty. She wonders if they work in machinery, too.
The hungry one winks at her.
Mindy and Susan titter from behind the counter. (And Paak’s uncles were right--coward Chinese. Never shy, only cowards.)
So tall, they whisper, as though this were not true of their last shuffle of guests, or the one before. These ones are whiter, though. Pretty.
They’re unclean, Paak thinks. But she rubs at her own brown skin.
Lowerey’s Diner in Manitou Creek is nothing special, and these men know it. They glance at the menu like it’s a body part--something known and familiar that need only be assessed, not discovered. Like Auntie and her hangnails. Like Ma and her swollen gout. They’re not excited about the selection and don’t expect to be; these are things you live with.
They’re ready in about four seconds, but don’t call her over. The hungry one just sort of flicks his gaze up at her and flicks it away, like they’re in the middle of something and waitresses are not invited. Their smiles are rushed. It’s all a little off-tempo.
Coffee, The Special, Side of Bacon. Nothing for Me, Thanks.
Paak stands at the threshold of the kitchen, repeating their order under her breath, counting its contents on the beads of her bracelet.
Behind her, the two men whisper.
What, Lowerey’s not reputable enough for you? says Hungry.
Come on, did you see that slop bucket outside? Do you even know what the “special” is?
OMELETTE. GREEN PANCAKE, CHINESE STYLE. GRAVY CANOE, Paak thinks.
Hungry says nothing.
Hungry says, Whatever. I’m just saying, let’s talk this out over some grub. I think maybe we’re jumping the gun on this one.
Mindy cooks well, for all her tittering. She’s not completely useless.
She’s to be married, she explained once. When she returns home she’ll have suitors. Young businessmen home from the city for the autumn solstice, with mooncakes wrapped up in fancy red-gilt boxes. They’ll want her because she has experience doing business in America.
She has experience working at a National Park as a cook as a waitress in Minnesota one summer.
Susan’s phone yelps, “LINE!” and Paak quickly can’t stand either of them any more. As the bacon fries, sparkling richly with Real American Fat, Paak wanders back out to the front desk.
She rearranges post cards.
The men are like all the men she knew in Wisconsin. Same Carhartts. Same thick hands. Messy not-quite beard, not remotely beard--the lazy scruff Paak’s brother absolutely could not grow. (His hairs always sprouted from his chin and lip like wiry, solitary eels.)
She hears two things that might be names, though these men have a drawl that’s hard for her to understand. They have an ugly accent, like Mindy, like Susan. Like Paak.
(Co ffithespecialsideofbeykunAndNothingforme please)
Paak knows only sharp Milwaukee English. Round Minnesotan. Sam, though. And Dean. Those are easy names.
In Ma’s tongue, just these two sounds would mean a dozen things, depending on their intonation. But Paak’s mother says that even when Paak tries, she still sounds like an American--always so flat.
To her, Sam means Sam. Dean means Dean. One sound, one man.
The man with his back to her--the man whose back was jabbed, the taller one--adjusts his coat. She catches a flash of metal at his waistband and for a moment Paak thinks, hide.
These men are the same as all the rest.
When Paak is thirteen a whiskey bottle filled with bloated cigarettes crashes through her bedroom window. At first it’s nothing, just the way this street is, but in the morning there’s black oil screaming hatred on their driveway. GO HOME GOOKS. Ma isn’t mad she’s not American--she has no pretensions. But she is not Vietnamese. She’s from a village in Laos that she refuses to name, but she is proud of it; she’s no Gook.
Paak is sixteen and not at all proud when federal agents burst through their front door. Her Ma is in trouble because her brother is in trouble--or an uncle, an auntie--someone. Maybe everyone. They’ve been doing things they’re not supposed to do. Selling, maybe. Green cards jeopardized, maybe jail time. Maybe go home, pretend to be Gooks. They quit the black market fast after that--everyone except Paak’s brother.
At nineteen, more drunk men. Paak is accused of witchcraft. This time, she’s the one who made a mistake, brought them home after a party because she was mad and she hated her mother and her brother was three days missing. The men see their shrine, the red threads leading up to the ceiling, the heavens. Break it all and then Ma starts screaming. Her brother never gets found.
Twenty-five, and a white man in a heavy green coat--like that one, like the one sitting in a Lowerey’s chair gulping coffee--tells her what Ministry he’s from (she’s familiar with this routine by now--Milwaukee can actually be a very welcoming city). Tells her he has a job for a girl like her, maybe. A neat, nice girl.
And now she’s here, making more money staring at men than her mother does in the factory. Than her uncles and the machines. Not as much as her brother, though, before he disappeared. This man was one of the good ones. Savior, maybe.
But all these tall white men, they’re all the same to her. It doesn’t matter what their names are. Paak can hardly tell them apart.
Hungry is more personable after coffee, or less hungover. He smiles more patiently when she brings his Special and its side of bacon.
Then too patiently. She feels naked.
I’m sorry, he says. It’s been a long drive.
We don’t serve alcohol on these premises. We don’t have a license, Paak says quickly. It’s all she can think to say.
Hungry and Back look at each other, maybe embarrassed. Embarrassed she, just the waitress, can see (and smell) so much of them. Then Paak thinks of the gun in Back’s pants and maybe regrets her honesty.
Manitou Creek is a nice place, nicer than Milwaukee; don’t get her wrong. But you get strange ones up here sometimes. Down from the forest, off from the roads. From folds of American soil Paak’s never seen first-hand. They actually make her miss Milwaukee, these wanderers and voyagers. At least in Milwaukee there’s city blocks and turf lines.
Men like these ones never care about any of that, though. And Back has a gun.
On second thought, could I get what he’s having? asks Back.
He smiles and it looks nice.
Just the pancake part.
Mindy is counting the number of pancakes it will take her to get back home to Guangdong.
Today is April 24, 2010.
That means there’s a good many pancakes between now and Tuen Ng.
Mindy starts crying in Chinese, even though that’s not allowed. (English only at work, please.)
If she’s not careful, she will learn Chinese in northern Minnesota, in an American diner, surrounded by tall white men. Guang dong tuen ng yí jiàn zhōng qíng shut up SHUT UP.
If she turns Chinese, Ma will never take her back.
So Paak goes back to the front, and returns her focus to her two white men. Even though they stare. Even though they whisper. She’d rather face a white man’s gun than a crying Chinese girl.
She can still see the gun, maybe. Something bright at the edge of Back’s jacket. But maybe that’s only underwear.
He does have a nice strong back. For a moment she imagines kissing him--then is terrified by her own imagination. Ma always said that’s what gets her into trouble. Paak digs her nails into her palms until she feels the heat drain from her face.
It’s easier to stare at Hungry--because she can see his face and it reminds her of men beyond their body parts. It reminds her of their own staring, their drinking, their danger. Not just their strong backs.
Hungry’s dirty fingers dance over the tabletop.
Then he says something strange.
I mean, it doesn’t matter if the world’s gonna end in t minus what, 90? Ten? says Hungry. It doesn’t matter. There’s not a whole lot that we’d be--even if we jump at this, that ain’t gonna change.
He looks ill.
Back grabs Hungry’s wrist, hard like he intends to drag him up from something--or break it. He spits out something reassuring. Paak can’t tell what he said--and she still can’t tell if the problem is her English, or theirs; but they must be far from home, talking like that--but Hungry’s expression wavers.
I’m not--”backing out on you,” says Hungry, like he’s annoyed by the insinuation.
Back’s shoulders straighten. His coat settles differently, heavy and resolute. Paak can’t see the gun anymore. This time for sure.
This is the right thing to do, Back says. I promise.
Hungry takes a deep breath and then a big bite. I’ll get the rifles, then. And the whiskey.
Then he’s gone and Susan’s prodding Paak’s elbow with a dish so hot it burns. Back’s pancake.
I can put this in a box, if you want, says Paak, as she nears the table. Back is counting crumpled bills.
Nah, that’s fine, says Back. We’re in a rush.
I HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR STAY IN MANITOU CREEK, says Paak, brochure perfect. Mr...Dean?
Back’s face twists.
Chris The Manager would not be pleased.
Mr. Sam? Paak tries again.
Listen to me, Back tells her.
No matter what you hear, you stay inside, okay?
She must give him a stupid look, because he repeats himself, slower. Calmer.
Hungry comes back then, peeks through the front door and says Aw, shit when he realizes what Back must be trying to explain.
And Paak, Paak asks the one question Ma forbade her, so many years and thousands of miles ago. Back when Paak was young, too young to know the place that she lived had a name--that it needed a name because there was more than one place, that this place she would never see again. (Ma slapped her so hard she fell, the last time she asked this question.)
Excuse me, Paak asks. But what’s going on?
That’s...complicated, says Back.
We’re not who you think we are, Hungry tries to assures her, though even he doesn’t seem convinced.
We’re not what you think we are.
When Paak hears the shots--two, in quick succession; brash and unsilenced--she whips still, scared but nostalgic. She knows that sound, and it reminds her of home, of all her homes.
Mindy and Susan shock white, whiter than their powders and lotions. Susan’s phone yelps, “LINE!” and Mindy giggles, nervous.
I’m going to call the police, Susan announces.
Paak crosses her arms in front of her face--a warding.
(her brother, being dragged out from under the bed; federal agents; police lights swirling)
Do you trust the police in Guangdong? she asks.
Susan looks at Mindy. She silences her phone, holds the power button until the screen goes black.
Then there’s a rap at the door.
We’re not who you think we are, Hungry insists. We’re--
Then he doubles over, throws up in Lowerey’s slop bucket. Again.
Easy, Roy, says Back. He rubs Hungry’s back. Roy’s back.
(It’s just one more single-syllable name.)
We just wasted Sam Winchester, Roy. We did a good thing.
Roy sputters agreement. We did a good thing, okay. Killing Sam, we did a good thing, but then we--
Back asks for a towel. And a to-go order of those pancakes if you got any, he says.
We make them fresh, says Paak, feeling half-dumb. Can I get your name for the order?
Back looks at Roy, throwing up; his hand goes to the gun at his back; then to his cheek, where he wipes flecks of someone else’s blood from his skin.
Darling, he says, You know I can’t give you that.
Paak looks at Roy, whose name is Roy.
Walt, you dumbass, hisses Roy.
Two plainclothes agents walk into Lowerey’s a few hours later. They are tall and plaid and white, as usual.
They have a few questions about some suspicious characters, if she’s got a minute. Two guys, yay high, open carry?
Mindy and Susan pretend. COOK ONLY, VERY TASTY, they say. SORRY NO ENGLISH. But maybe Mindy and Susan aren’t pretending. These two men have foreign accents, too. They are voyagers from afar, and their English is crumpled. Yet another brand of American.
Yes, Paak says. She has a minute. It is, after all, what she’s been hired to have.
But Paak does not give answers. She only shrugs and says, People disappear sometimes. Sorry.
The man shrugs back.
He’s a tall white man looking for tall white men in Minnesota; maybe he understands.
No problem, he says. Figured it was worth a shot.
Then he turns to his partner. Breakfast, Sammy? Whaddaya say?
Nothing for me, Sammy (Winchester?) says flatly.
He’s upset about something. Won’t stop looking at his partner’s neck--there’s something missing and there shouldn’t be, like a limb, or a hangnail.
There’s grime under his nails and blood in his hair, even though he smells like soap.
Suit yourself, says the other one. Then he orders a side of bacon, the Special, and coffee.
Paak looks at his hands.
He’s got blood on him, too, same as all the rest.
* Line didn’t debut until 2011, so it’s an anachronism here, but aurally, I really wanted that stupid chime to be a part of this fic.